Women of Ireland, the hustings need you
Cllr Mary Fitzpatrick speaking to delegates at the Inspire programme.
Niamh Gallagher (left) and Michelle O'Donnell Keating, who founded Women for Election, the organisation behind Inspire. photographs: dara mac dónaill
If Irish women can scale the heights to chief justice, director of public prosecutions and president of Ireland, what is preventing them doing the same in day-to-day politics? A report from the UK on women and power shows that of western countries surveyed, only Italy and Ireland have a lower percentage of female legislators than the UK.And yet at 8.45am on a damp Saturday in February, 35 women have turned up to take part in Inspire, a one-day programme designed to give women an introduction to political life, focusing on campaigns, communications and confidence.
The women, who paid €200 each to be here, are busy networking and gathering information about getting on a ticket. “I haven’t a tenner to spend, let alone €200, but this was too good an opportunity to miss,” says 23-year-old Sarah Wright, a politics student and education and welfare officer at Queen’s University, who raised the money on Facebook.
“I’m here to get an idea of the obstacles I’m going to come up against and to hear from the women who have done that and still love their jobs.”
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald and Fianna Fáil councillor Mary Fitzpatrick are here to give advice. Communications consultant Terry Prone, who is training here for the day, zips around, hammering home pointers on how to get your message across and how to fend off interruptions. She also reminds her audience about the importance of presentation: “The gaze pattern on a woman goes right down to the shoes; on men, only to the tie.”
Veronica Dyas, a 36-year-old Rada-trained theatre practitioner from The Liberties, is here to “understand how the gap between the politics of my daily life and Government politics is so huge”. She says: “It’s already been worth it, just to be in the same room as these women. Some of their stories are the stuff of legend.”
Were the participants daunted by Fitzpatrick’s stories of the “Drumcondra mafia”? “No way,” says Jennifer Cuffe, a barrister and Fianna Fáil area representative for Ballybrack. “Of all the speakers, her story made me even more motivated to get out there.”
Politics at the root of everything
Inspire is run by Women for Election (WFE), a not-for-profit organisation that aims to equip women to succeed in politics. Margaret Sweeney, who has vast industry experience, initially declined the invitation to chair the WFE board because she had no political experience. “I came from a business background . . . but then it dawned on me from 25 years in business, politics is at the root of it all,” she says.
Helen McGuire, a social worker and previously campaign officer with Campaign for Children, says she has no desire to run for election, but believes the tools provided here, particularly for communications and confidence, are transferable to almost everything.
WFE co-founder Niamh Gallagher tells everyone to go home with at least five email addresses. Sarah Wright from Belfast says she has all 35, and everyone has Prone’s mobile number. (She happily parts with it on condition that no one ring her after 8pm.)
Lisa Chambers, a 26-year-old barrister and local-area representative for Fianna Fáil from Mayo, and the only participant here today to have contested a general election, has her eyes firmly fixed on 2014. “I love the idea of a support network for women,” she says. Is there a lack of support from her own party? “Not at all, I’ve encountered hardly any negativity from men or women but the fact is that men have connections in place and women don’t.”
Cliodhna Ryan, a final-year primary school teaching student at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, is here on a sponsored place because of the college’s president, Dr Daire Keogh. He noticed that his college has a female population of 80 per cent yet the student union is dominated by males.
Although Ryan is from a political family in Waterford, it is her first time at anything like this. “It’s such a relief to be able to have these conversations finally. I feel like just being here, you nearly have a team already,” she says.
“Team” is a recurring theme throughout the day: the importance of selecting a team; the fundamental understanding that you need a team. The lone man, Cathal Lee, campaign director for Seán Gallagher’s presidential run, is here to present a step-by-step guide to campaigning – one guaranteed to make any political aspirant wonder if this is really what they want to do.
His session closes with a stark slide show of defaced campaign posters. “You know all about that don’t you?” he asks, looking at Fitzpatrick. “Oh I do,” she says wryly.
For Catherine Martin, deputy leader of the Green Party, the objective was to find out if moving from campaign manager to candidate was the right choice. “I can see why it’s called Inspire . . . After hearing from Terry [Prone] and Cathal [Lee], I’m 100 per cent decided I’m going to do it,” she says.
Not everyone wants to have their face on a poster. Then again, as Cuffe discovered at last year’s Fianna Fáil Ardfheis, this could be your “calling”. Either way, it’s not for everyone. “For a variety of reasons, it’s not a sane employment choice for women,” says Fitzpatrick.
Lisa Chambers says it’s tough juggling King’s Inns training in Dublin with midweek party commitments in Castlebar. “But you just get on with it.”
The hope is that the other attendees will do likewise. As Niamh Gallagher says: “Go forth and be part of making this change.”
See womenforelection.iefor details on the next Inspire programme
Top tips: Good shoes, hair and listen, listen, listen
* Leadership is over-glorified. You need at least one person, 15 at most, with you on your team.
* No conceptual language. Tell your story through anecdotes.
* If you are fond of using an upward inflection at the end of statements, stop. It indicates doubt.
* Be interested and interesting, and listen, listen, listen.
* Go canvassing to see if you like it.
* Wear good, comfortable shoes, says Mary Fitzpatrick.
* Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will, said Hillary Clinton in 2000.
* Let go of the micromanagement. It kills female candidates, says Cathal Lee.
* To run a “flash” local campaign, work around a budget of €10,000.
* Start your campaign now. Selection for 2014 local elections start up to 12 months in advance.